February 16, 1999

The Music of Billy May: A Discography.  Compiled by Jack Mirtle.  Greenwood Press, 1998.  529 pages.  ISBN: 0-313-30739-3.  Price: $79.50 (a discount may be available to ARSC members).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

My first reaction on receiving this new discography was “Why?”  “Why Billy May?”  Unlike several arranger-conductors of his era (Gordon Jenkins, Les Baxter and Nelson Riddle come to mind), he never had a hit record he could call his own.  His biggest solo single, according to Whitburn’s Billboard chart books, was a 1952 version of  “Charmaine”–and we know who had the best selling version of that[i].  Another good seller was 1956’s “Main Title from The Man with the Golden Arm.”  However there were seven versions of that tune on the charts, of which May’s placed fifth.

It is a shame that we recall popular musicians solely by their hits.  Billy May had a fascinating career in music (which by the way is not over–at 82, he still dabbles in conducting).  One of the original wild men of studio conducting in the ’50s and ’60s, and a man with a considerable sense of humor, he kept the sound of big band swing alive well beyond the genre’s “official” demise after World War II.  He is probably best known for his collaborations with some of the biggest mainstream pop singers of the ’50s, notably Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole.  His first two albums with Sinatra, “Come Fly with Me” and “Come Dance with Me,” are considered classics.  He also backed, and arranged for, such varied talent as Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Nancy Wilson, Vic Damone, George Shearing, Margaret Whiting, Fanny Brice and Stan Freberg.

May began as a sideman/arranger for Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller between 1939-1942.  He then did a lot of radio work, and scored his first significant commercial success as the creator/arranger of a series of big selling children’s albums on Capitol in the late 1940’s, including Bozo the Clown (1946) and Little Toot (1947).  One of the children’s songs he co-composed, “I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat” (vocal by Mel Blanc), was actually a top ten hit in 1951.  The early ’50s favored songs like that–no wonder America’s youth embraced rock ‘n’ roll when it came along in 1955.  It is doubtful that “Puddy Tat” is the song May wants to be remembered by, but given his legendary sense of humor, you never know.  Then followed those glorious collaborations with Cole, Sinatra, et al, principally on the Capitol label.

Not all the repertoire was glorious, of course.  May was a working bandleader who played and recorded whatever he was asked to, from “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel” (on an album with the alarming title “The Hi-Lo’s Happen to Folk Music”) to pop drivel such as “The Isle of Capri” (which musicians lampoon as “‘Twas on a pile of debris that I found her…”).

The Music of Billy May traces May’s recordings in immaculate detail.  Jack Mirtle, previously known for his fine bio-discography of clown prince Spike Jones, had access to never-before-revealed files of the American Federation of Musicians, containing great detail on most of May’s sessions, as well as to the files of Capitol, RCA, and other labels for whom May recorded.  The discography is drawn principally from these sources, and an “Author’s Notes” at the front of the book laudably explains how the research was done and the reliability of the various sources.  May himself reviewed the manuscript, and his comments on various matters are cited.  The main listings begin with a 1944 session for ARA, backing Hoagy Carmichael, and conclude with a 1998 date with Frank Sinatra, Jr.  May’s glory years were in the ’50s and ’60s, with recordings less frequent after that.  As late as 1995 he collaborated with Stan Freberg on the long-awaited United States of America, Volume 2.

The discographical layout is standard but exceptionally detailed.  Each session begins with a header consisting of date, location, time of day, producer, featured artist, participating musicians (including all band members, when available), arranger and even manager.  Below that are lines for each of the masters cut at the session, with title, timing, and all known issues (78, 45, LP, CD, cassette).  Explanatory notes include personnel identifications by May himself.

I have two minor quibbles with the layout–and I mention them only because this is a publication whose readers care about such things.  First, when you open the book for the first time it is hard to know where an entry begins.  The line with date and location (correct answer) is in the same typeface and style as the end of the previous entry, and could easily belong to it.  The second line (featured artist) is shown in BOLD and UNDERLINED, and sure looks like it wants to grab your attention first.  Additionally, after each master number Mirtle shows all releases (sometimes several lines of them), and then the title he is referring to.  Clarity would suggest it ought to be the other way around, title followed by issues.  Of course when you use the book you quickly get used to the author’s conventions.  Yes, there is a full explanation in the introduction, but casual readers won’t use it and, in any event, my feeling is that readers ought to be able to open a new discography to any page and intuitively figure out how to read it.  End of quibble.

Besides a full discussion of the research methodology and sources (hooray!), there is an introduction by former Capitol president and May collaborator Alan Livingston, an 18-page biography of Billy May, and ten pages of pictures.  The biography was also vetted by May, which undoubtedly makes it very accurate but also a little sanitized for such a legendary, hard-drinking hell-raiser (even Sinatra, no slouch himself, once commented “I don’t believe that guy!”).  A better bio will be found in Will Friedwald’s great book, Sinatra! The Song Is You (Scribner, 1995), in which May and his work with Sinatra receive an entire chapter.

Other welcome sections of this very complete book include a chapter on May as a sideman and arranger for other bands (beginning in 1943), his radio, film, televison and international appearances, his road band of the ’50s, his transcriptions, a bibliography, and indexes by label, song title and artist.

So–a well researched, well-organized, thorough study of the recording career of a colorful bandleader who may not be first to mind for most people, but who had an important career nonetheless.  (That is not meant as criticism; I’m the guy who filled two issues of the ARSC Journal with the story of Willie Robyn, remember?)  Is it worth the hefty price?  If you are at all interested in the subject, and can get past the reservation reflected in the first paragraph of this review, then the answer is definitely “yes.”  The Music of Billy May, like the bandleader himself, is a class act.


[i]. Mantovani, just in case you forgot.

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